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Trolley Problems

Choices and Consequences

By C. Rommial ButlerPublished 2 years ago 13 min read

Hermann stood at his window, looking out on the city. A billboard right outside his apartment building advertised the incumbent President of the United States. It was an election year. Half the voting population hated the guy, half loved him. Hermann hated him and his opposition. All politicians were terrible, disgusting, pandering, lying, cheating, stealing filth in his eyes, but what was an independent to do but vote the lesser evil? Yet, this year there was no lesser evil, just pure shit. Pure shit, and Hermann was sad for the declining state of democracy.

Hermann turned away from his window, shutting out this bleak realization about the crumbling American empire. He instead ruminated on the thought experiment commonly known as the trolley problem.

The basic scenario goes as such: there is a runaway train speeding ahead down a track to which five people are bound and unable to move. They will be murdered by the train. However, he is standing at a switch which will divert the train, but on the second track only a single person is bound. Will he flip the switch and divert the train, knowing that he is responsible for killing the individual on the second track, but also knowing he saved the lives of five others?

He sincerely believed every human life had equal prospective value, so he was generally in favor of pulling the switch, knowing that he would save five lives and sacrifice only one. If he didn’t pull the switch, he would still be a murderer, since the power was in his hands, and to do nothing would also result in the death of others; but something ate at him, and he could not figure out what.

Of course, such a scenario would never come to pass. He was not standing at a switch, watching a train barrel down on helpless victims. The world was so much more complex than that, and there were few, if any, cut and dry solutions to the problem of human suffering. Philosophical thought experiments were about exploring principles. The application to reality was a different story.

Hermann sat in the leather easy chair in his living room, sipping whisky, listening to a choral rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The fifth of liquor from which he was indulging went from full to three-quarters full. He was pleasantly buzzed, and the symphony stopped. An opera singer began to intone the words to Schiller’s Ode to Joy. In German, of course, but Hermann had looked up the translation, so he knew what the words meant: there must be some divine purpose, so long as we experience joy in the twisting and turning of our particular fate. This even though it is not always pleasant. Joy redeems us. Joy proves that life is not an end, but an ever-renewable beginning.

As the orchestra began to build again to accentuate the singer’s words, Hermann was skeptical. Sure, he was enjoying himself right now, but at the same time he knew he was also escaping from a pain he could barely relate. An existential dread pervaded his entire existence. He often hated his life, and wished he were dead. What difference in this sense (Hermann thought as the chorus swelled in the background to match the lone singer’s entreaty) did it make if he saved one person or five, when we were all doomed?

Old Ludwig had written this piece of music to commemorate a life in which he had been largely deaf, miserable, and alone. Yet at the time Beethoven debuted the Ninth, even though the performance was subpar, and the old man barely understood what was going on, the crowd had cheered him with resounding fervor. It had been twelve years since anyone had heard him perform his wonderful music, and people loved the man as myth, as a living legend. Why had so many of them treated old Ludwig so horribly otherwise? Like so many great individuals throughout history, he was loved for what he produced, but not for who he was.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony was still, centuries later, considered one of the greatest musical compositions ever written. Beethoven was, in Hermann’s own estimation, a fucking immortal.

The fifth of whiskey had gone from three-quarters to a little under half full very fast and Hermann’s vision was now swimming in pulsating waves that were more than just resonant nostalgia. He was trying to stay awake but as the end of the symphony drew near, so did his consciousness. He drifted away.

The fucking immortal Beethoven!

Hermann dreamed. He was standing at a train switch. There were five people tied to the track which stretched out ahead of him. A train was speeding toward them. He had time to look upon the diverging track, and he saw no one was on it. Easy choice! He flipped the switch and jumped back.

As the train swept away, however, Hermann noticed a man walking toward him and across the other track. Hermann screamed but his voice was drowned in the roar of the passing train. He could only watch in dawning horror as the man stepped in front of the train. Hermann’s line of sight mercifully spared him the vision of the man being disintegrated by the onslaught.

Shaking and weeping, Hermann fell to his knees. Then he heard the yelling from the five people he had saved, and he perked up. Drying away tears, he rose and ran to untie them. Upon arrival, however, horror dawned anew.

Tied to the tracks were indeed five people. Four of the five were wearing brown uniforms with an all-too-familiar red armband, which prominently displayed a black swastika. One of them was undeniably Hitler. Adolph fucking Hitler. The only man not wearing a Nazi uniform also had an undeniable likeness: Benito Mussolini.

Hermann jerked awake in a cold sweat, reclining in his armchair. His stereo speakers were hissing, as his old stereo buzzed when no music played through it. He had a headache. He got up and turned off the stereo receiver. He shook his head. What a shitty dream! His curtains were still open, and he went to shut them.

Peering out the same window he stood at earlier, he froze.

The billboard no longer showed an incumbent president, but rather a giant swastika, and the words on it were in German. He stood there for a long while, staring in disbelief.

A knock at his front door jarred him from his unpleasant revery. He went to answer it and noticed his hand shaking as he reached for the doorknob. He opened the door. Before him stood a man who was over six feet tall and very thin. Hermann was five foot eleven inches, and this guy had at least three inches on him. He looked very familiar, but Hermann could not place him. He was an old man, with gray hair. Hermann’s first thought was of all those Hammer horror flicks he so loved to watch as a kid.

“Peter Cushing?” Hermann asked the man.

With a thick Eastern European accent, the man replied, “I do not know who that is. My name is Nikola Tesla, and I think you may somehow have ruined my greatest experiment.”

“Tesla? The Nikola Tesla? Oh my god, it is indeed an honor, sir! Sorry I didn’t recognize you sooner! I’m used to seeing pictures of you as a much younger man. With the mustache and all! Come in, please! I am very confused,” Hermann said, shaking his head and closing the door behind Mr. Tesla. “How can you be here? You died years ago. I mean… are you really Nikola Tesla?”

“I know it seems impossible, but I assure you that I am the real Nikola Tesla. What is your name?” Tesla asked.

“Hermann. Hermann Haller.”

“May we sit somewhere, Hermann? We haven’t much time before the Gestapo arrive, but we need to talk, and my bones are weary,” Tesla said.

“The Gestapo! Oh, fuck! Maybe we should hit the road and find a safer place to talk!” Hermann could feel a panic attack coming on. Seeing the look on Hermann’s face, Tesla reached out and placed a cartoonishly large hand on the other man’s shoulder, looking him squarely in the eyes.

“My friend,” Tesla said, “please do not be alarmed. Where you will be going, you will not need roads. But first, we must speak. I must prepare you.”

Hermann saw resolve in the old man’s eyes that steeled him inside. The Nikola Tesla! “Yes, Mr. Tesla, yes, I have a place to sit.” Separated from his kitchenette by a bar was a small dining room with a wooden table and four chairs. Hermann pulled out a chair and beckoned Tesla to sit. “Please, be my guest, sir. Can I get you anything to eat or drink?”

“No. But thank you for asking. Sit across from me and listen very carefully,” Tesla replied.

Hermann sat down on the other side of the table. Tesla’s eyes were a blue of such a light shade that there seemed to be white specks floating in the irises like clouds, with yellow lightning bolts streaking between them. It seemed like a magic trick. Hermann sat mesmerized by Tesla’s unblinking stare as the elder scientific statesman spoke a monologue which would not only change Hermann’s life, but which would be a preamble to the reinvention of an entire world.

“I died in 1943,” Tesla said. “Or, at least, everyone thinks that I did; but the body which was found in room 3327 of the New Yorker hotel was not this one, but one of many doppelgangers I created so as to transfer my consciousness. I haven’t the time to go into how this was possible, but suffice it to say, it is not a simple process, and it requires physical material from the body in which one is originally born. Otherwise, I should have hopped from younger man to younger man instead of retaining this increasingly decrepit shell. This body I am in now shall be my last, as I have no desire to live on once I complete my most important task, and the process simply takes too much time and attention.”

Hermann opened his mouth to ask the first of what would be many questions, but Tesla raised a hand to ward them off.

“I am sorry, my new and dear friend, but I have no time for your questions. Please listen. Shortly before transferring to this body, I also discovered the secret of time travel. I worked long and hard on that project, and when I finally found out how to make it work, I had cause to use it to right a wrong for which I feel partly responsible. You see, I had a friend named Viereck. I knew his wife and him from the late 1920’s and would often call on them. He became a Nazi propagandist, however, during the thirties. Like so many others during that tumultuous time, I did not understand how serious the Nazi problem was until it was too late. Any ideology can pose such dangers, and as a man of science I saw no reason to interfere with the politics of the wider world. By the 1940’s I only wanted to feed my pigeons and be left in peace to attend to my work.

I am ashamed to admit, however, that I had accrued so much debt by 1943, that the only way I could carry on was to fake my own death, move away from New York, and form a new identity. I went back to Colorado, where I still had a few trusted friends, and began work on my time travel device.”

Here Tesla stopped, still holding Hermann’s eyes, and pursed his lips, sighing through his nose. He went on, “Yet by the time I completed it the war was over, Hitler was dead, and, at first, my initial plan to use the time device to go back and end the war before it started seemed a waste. Then, news of the camps started to come forth.”

A single tear welled in the old man’s left eye. As he continued to speak, it rolled down his bony left cheek, and hung suspended from his chin, sparkling in the electric light that he had been responsible for proliferating. The tear separated and fell to the table, splattering like a raindrop. “Knowing that I had been responsible for putting some of the ideas about eugenics into my friend Viereck’s head, and that those ideas had migrated across the sea to the Fuhrer, I could not turn away from the possibility that I had been in some way responsible for the Holocaust. I had certainly never thought of…”

Tesla paused, but he still did not blink. He held Hermann’s eyes. “Let me say it this way, Hermann: no matter how intelligent we are, none of us can know all, especially the inevitable ramifications of even our most noble beliefs when they have been twisted and distorted through the lens of blind, stupid hate. In any event, to make a long story short, I discovered upon experimenting with the device that it had severe limits. There are forces at work beyond my comprehension, which seem to interfere with my every attempt to alter the course of events. No matter when or where I went, I could not assassinate Hitler before he became the Fuhrer, but I did deduce that the closer it got to his suicide, the easier it was to get close to him, so I picked a critical moment when I could bag two for one: a meeting Hitler had with Benito Mussolini in 1936.”

“Oh, no,” Hermann whispered.

“Oh, yes, dear Hermann. How did you manage to be standing at that switch, and what compelled you to pull it?” Tesla asked.

“I thought I was dreaming. I fell asleep from too much whisky, listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and I was thinking about the trolley problem.” As Hermann explained in more detail, Tesla nodded and smiled weakly.

“Ah, now it begins to make sense,” Tesla remarked. “Whatever it is that keeps interfering with my best laid plans somehow used you to thwart this one.”

“So you were the man that stepped in front of the train! How did you survive?” Hermann asked.

“I blindly triggered the device right before the train hit me, and I ended up standing outside your building. I looked up and saw you in the window. I recognized you because I saw you standing at the switch before I teleported,” Tesla answered. “I made haste to your door because I saw a fellow citizen pointing at me and talking to a Gestapo officer in the street. I assume they saw me materialize out of thin air.”

“When I looked across at the other track,” Hermann said, “I saw no one there. I thought I was saving five lives, but from the view outside my window, I now understand that I must have condemned many millions more,” Hermann’s voice cracked on the last syllable and a sob escaped him.

“Now, now, dear friend, I am not angry at you. You could not have known, just as I could not have known what my old friend Vierick would make of my ideas. We can still right this wrong, you and I together. I have to believe it. But I must warn you,” Tesla said, and he took a small device from his pocket, which looked like a miniature Tesla coil. On top of it was a tiny lever. Tesla set it on the table between Hermann and himself. “You may not come back, Hermann. You may be stuck in 1936.”

“Me? But won’t you be going back too?” Hermann asked.

“Ah, see, that’s the thing. Time travel deteriorates the human body, and I can feel that the sort of blood clot that murdered my last doppelganger will soon take me. Even now, my chest hurts. It will not be long. The device will take you back to the moment when you pulled the switch.” Tesla took a deep breath. “At least, I hope it will. You see, it works by recording my thoughts. It is tuned only to my thoughts. I can make it send you back, but you cannot use it in reverse.” Tesla’s words were beginning to come out in a strained manner, through gritted teeth. “Please, Hermann, help me right this wrong. I have no more time.”

There was a knock at the door. “Gestapo! Öffnen!”

Hermann sat up straight and looked Tesla in his vibrant blue eyes. “Do it, sir! Do it now!”

Tesla flipped the switch atop the device. Hermann felt a jolt pass through him, and it hurt, as if it would tear him apart. Then everything went black.

Cushing and Tesla! Which is which? (Hint: it doesn't matter, they're both fucking immortal.)

Suddenly Hermann was standing at the switch. He looked across at the five men tied to the track, recognizing the brown shirts now for what they were. He kept expecting another Hermann to appear. Would he have to fight himself to keep the other Hermann from pulling the switch?

The train began to rattle toward him.

No other Hermann appeared.

All he had to do was nothing. It was the easiest decision he had ever made in his life. The sound of the train crunching their bones and eviscerating their flesh bothered him, but then he recalled:

Human beings emaciated to skeletal shadows of their former selves.

Piles of naked, dead bodies alongside the stolen clothes and jewelry they once owned.

Interviews with survivors who wept for love lost that would never be found again anywhere but in the darkened theater of their broken hearts.

He surveyed his memory for these among many more wartime atrocities and found he could live with the discomfort it caused him to allow these five men to meet an untimely demise. Not only that, but he no longer felt the urge to die.

Perhaps it was only the exhilaration of the moment, but even knowing he was stuck here in 1936, he felt for the first time in his life that he had done something worthwhile. He had a purpose. A divine purpose? He didn’t know, but it certainly felt that way.

He felt joy.

After the train passed, a gaunt old man with startling, electric blue eyes stood on the other side of the track, regarding Hermann with curiosity.

“Hello, Nikola,” Hermann said as tears stood in his eyes. “You don’t know me, but we have a lot to talk about.”

In the distance, the train was screeching to a halt as the conductor realized what had just happened.

“Well, stranger,” Tesla replied, “you have certainly piqued my interest, but we had better move so we aren’t caught here at the scene of this crime.”

Hermann’s face stretched in a wide smile as he stepped across the track. He linked arms with the old man, and they walked off into the setting sun, like two heroes from an old Western movie that had yet to be made.

Short Story

About the Creator

C. Rommial Butler

C. Rommial Butler is a writer, musician and philosopher from Indianapolis, IN. His works can be found online through multiple streaming services and booksellers.

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  • Dharrsheena Raja Segarran2 months ago

    Whoaaaaa Rommi, you blew my mind with this story! Gosh imagine feeling so proud of saving 5 people and then finding out one of them was Hitler! And Tesla being the guy that survived being hit by the train and then him paying Hermann a visit! Because the universe used Hermann to thrawt Tesla's plan! And then him sending Hermann back in time to make sure Hitler and the others get hit and then meeting Tesla again! Whoaaaa, so freaking mindblowing! This should be a movie!

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